Poet? Engineer? In conversation with students, Richard Blanco says he's both

Thursday, September 25, 2014
Richard Blanco answers a student question about translating technical engineering knowledge into writing that’s readable to non-engineers: “Your first sentence opens up an idea. Think of them as trusses in a bridge — this is the way I think about even poetry — or any kind of trusses: this line has to carry the weight of [the previous] line and transfer it to the next line, the next member. Which is another way of saying, this [second line] has to refer to the idea that’s presented [in the first line] and advance another point or another dimension of that point.” (Photo by Jess Hunt.)

“People sort of misunderstand and I have to clarify … I didn’t give up engineering to become a poet. I’ve been a poet-engineer all my life.”

That’s how civil engineer, author, poet and speaker Richard Blanco began an informal conversation with Georgia Tech students Sept. 25. He spent much of the rest of the hour answering questions and talking about navigating his own right-brain, left-brain dichotomy as well as why engineering and poetry aren’t the strange bedfellows they might seem.

Blanco said he trained as a civil engineer, diving deeply into the math and science required. It wasn’t until he started working as a consultant and writing proposals for clients that his passion for words reignited.

“That’s when I discovered language, and I started falling in love with language and realizing that language was engineered, like everything else,” Blanco said. “My right brain came back on and said, ‘What else can we do with this cool thing, language?’ And then I started writing poetry.”

Blanco has done that to some acclaim — winning awards for his first two books of poetry and getting a call to write and perform an original poem at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. He was the first Latino, immigrant and gay writer to receive the honor.

Organized by the student chapter of the Association of Environmental Engineers and Scientists, the gathering was part of a day of events featuring Blanco that also included an evening poetry reading. Other highlights of the conversation:

“Whether you’re an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer or a poet or a painter, to be a well-rounded person will always strengthen who you are. … Nothing is ever put to waste. Knowledge is all connected. Some of the most brilliant minds and some of the most brilliant solutions and things that have changed the world have been through synthesis of knowledge from seemingly disparate places.”

“In the last 10 years, I started doing a lot of revitalization projects … working with the community and thinking about what we were doing. Finally, there was an end-user to what I was engineering. This was their home. So I realized that I was engaged with them with the same thing that I was writing about. In the writing, it’s more a psychological discussion about what is place and home and identity, and with the engineering, it was sort of the physical landscape, how my obsession with place, home and identity expressed itself through three-dimensional form, through actual physical form.”

“You’re not done [when you graduate]. It’s not like an Easy-Bake Oven, you come out of Georgia Tech and you’re done, you’re a baked engineer, you’re ready. You’re going to start learning more.”

“When you study engineering, you can do practically anything you want afterwards. … Trust that what you’re doing in engineering is also going to help in whatever else you let take over your life.”

WATCH: Richard Blanco reads his original poem “One Today” during the 2013 Presidential Inauguration